The unintended consequences of forced BYOD

When personal equipment is required to handle business data and processes, say good-bye to traditional notions of corporate power

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I suppose a very authoritarian company -- they do exist -- could get away with making employees pay out of pocket for a specific device and subject it to complete IT control so that no personal apps or data could be used on it. This is akin to not only buying your uniform from only this supplier, but also ensuring it is kept clean and pressed. But that kind of company will have problems keeping workers not otherwise desperate for a job or utterly lacking in self-respect. If a company wants that level of control, it needs to at least buy the equipment in question.

You might think the "use your own car for business travel" approach would fit a forced-BYOD environment. After all, companies routinely refuse to pay for company cars for most employees. Yet for customer-facing employees, they require liability insurance (sometimes even policies that indemnify the employer) be maintained. They sometimes even require the employee maintain a level of appearance for the vehicle. That sure sounds like BYOD, right? "Use your own smartphone, but make sure it meets our core security requirements, which we'll check when you connect to Exchange or our MDM server or by having you install our app container for work access."

But unlike a car, a smartphone, tablet, or PC intimately interacts with business data and processes. That smartphone, tablet, or PC becomes part of the basic operational framework for the business, but the business has ceded it to the employee. The relationship is now more akin to the business outsourcing IT, relying on it to protect its data and ensure its processes -- except that each employee is an independent outsourcer, creating a fundamentally unmanageable mix.

In other words, forced BYOD confirms that employees -- at least knowledge workers -- are free agents or contractors fundamentally in charge of their information and processes. The business is the client, not the owner, despite whatever its CEO, HR chief, and legal counsel imagine they've done in their employment agreement. Forced BYOD ensures that is only a back-end function.

Is this bad? Probably not. It's certainly where we've long been heading as the business social compact began deteriorating in the 1990s -- remember the big fights over at-will employment and "you're responsible for your own career"? Businesses have long been automating away workers where possible and treating the rest as temporary contractors, regardless of their employment status.

When you adopt the contractor/outsource model, you fundamentally let go of the monolithic corporate model, which also means its information management, process management, process ownership, and information ownership. Forced BYOD formalizes that change.

Unfortunately, the companies that adopt forced BYOD likely have no clue what the decision really means. There is no technological way to maintain the control of the monolithic model in the contractor reality. And the regulatory and legal systems are largely clueless on how to work in the contractor reality. Already, traditional notions of data backup, deletion, and e-discovery are bumping against messy realities of intermingled personal-and-work devices.

It'll be a very messy transition, with lots of unintended consequences.

There's perhaps a silver lining. As I said, we seem to be going in that direction anyhow, and companies that adopt forced BYOD will at least make the shift explicit. We need that explicit acknowledgement to start the real discussions on how the business world and its regulations and legal requirements will need to change.

Whether you're a business manager, IT manager, lawyer, or regulator, these discussions will make the consumerization and BYOD debates we've had in the last few years look like a walk in the park.

This article, "The unintended consequences of forced BYOD," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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